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A quick guide to the 2011-12 NHL season

By Dan Di Sciullo
NHL Editor


Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It's been nearly four months since Tim Thomas and the Boston Bruins lifted Lord Stanley's Cup, ending a decades-long championship drought and claiming redemption for a club that suffered through a horrific collapse just one year earlier.

The Bruins were eliminated from the 2010 postseason in historic fashion, losing four straight games to Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference semifinals after taking a 3-0 series' lead. Instead of accepting a legacy defined by that playoff collapse, the Bruins were able to reverse the tide. In just one year, Boston went from all-time chokers to winning its first title since the days of Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito.

At best, every new NHL season offers millions of hockey fans the chance to see their favorite team right past wrongs with a championship. Obviously, at the end of the season only one team can deliver a title, but in October it's easy to be hopeful about your club's chances.

This summer brought the usual changes. Many players were traded while others used free agency to blaze new career paths.

Hockey was also marked by tragedy in 2011, as the deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak presaged the plane crash that killed several former NHLers this September in Russia. Now more than ever, the start of a new NHL season is a poignant reminder that life keeps on moving, even in the face of terrible hardships. In that spirit, here's a look ahead at what the 2011-12 NHL season could have in store.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

1. Washington (Southeast Division winner)
2. Boston (Northeast)
3. Pittsburgh (Atlantic)
4. Buffalo
5. Tampa Bay
6. NY Rangers
7. Philadelphia
8. Montreal


EAST CHAMPION: Boston

Unless you think this year will be different for Alex Ovechkin and the playoff-underachieving Washington Capitals, or if you can tell the future and know that Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby will bounce back from his concussion problems, it's hard not to like Boston to repeat as East champions.

The Bruins have managed to hold onto the strengths that helped them win it all last spring.
Sure, Tampa Bay is a formidable obstacle for the Bruins after coming up just one win shy of a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals last spring. The New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres also appear to have improved themselves vastly through offseason moves. Philadelphia is a wild card after signing goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov to a lengthy contract and trading away captain Mike Richards and top sniper Jeff Carter this summer.

Meanwhile, with so much changing around them, the Bruins have managed to hold onto the strengths that helped them win it all last spring. With captain and top defenseman Zdeno Chara leading the way from the back end and Thomas coming off a simply dominant season, the club still figures to be one of the stingiest in the NHL.

With Chara and Thomas entrenched as the faces of the team, it's easy to forget how good Boston's offense was last season. The Bruins, who were led by Milan Lucic and David Krejci's 62 points in 2010-11, went from 30th in the NHL in scoring two years ago to having the league's fifth-best offense last season.

Even more impressive was that Boston took that offensive leap forward without the services of Marc Savard for most of the season. It's important that the Bruins proved they could be a potent offense without Savard, who, at 34 years of age, may have played his last NHL game after suffering multiple concussions. Savard, who led Boston in scoring for three straight seasons from 2006-09, last played on Jan. 22 and has already been declared out for the entire 2011-12 campaign.

No team has won back-to-back Stanley Cup titles since Detroit in 1997 and '98, but the Bruins have a solid chance to end that string this season. At the very least, head coach Claude Julien's boys still appear to be the best of the bunch in the East.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

1. Vancouver (Northwest)
2. Chicago (Central)
3. Los Angeles (Pacific)
4. Detroit
5. San Jose
6. Anaheim
7. Nashville
8. St. Louis


WEST and STANLEY CUP CHAMPION: Chicago

One of the biggest stories heading into last season was how numerous offseason changes would affect the Chicago Blackhawks' chances at repeating as Stanley Cup champions?

On the surface, the fact that Chicago followed up its 2010 title with a first- round exit in '11 is not a great sign for the upcoming season. However, a closer look shows that the Blackhawks could be poised to reclaim Lord Stanley's Cup in 2012.

The Blackhawks clearly had their flaws last season and the club barely made the postseason, needing a loss by Dallas on the final day of the season to qualify. Only after going down 3-0 to Vancouver in the first round of the playoffs did Chicago show that it was still in possession of its championship swagger. The Blackhawks rattled off three straight wins against the eventual Western Conference champs and the Canucks needed an overtime victory in Game 7 to move onto the second round.

During that valiant comeback attempt it became clear that it wouldn't take much for Chicago to return to the winner's circle. The club's best asset is 23-year-old captain Jonathan Toews, who forms a potent 1-2 punch with Patrick Kane on the top line. Toews' leadership and ability to play his best hockey in the most crucial moments of a game, or series, is what sets the Blackhawks apart.

In addition to the likes of Toews, Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa up front, the Blackhawks also have a strong defensive corps led by 2010 Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith. Corey Crawford is also coming off an impressive rookie campaign as the goaltender proved he could replace Antti Niemi as the club's No. 1 backstop.

Chicago also spent this summer adding gritty players like Dan Carcillo, Jamal Mayers and Sean O'Donnell to the roster. GM Stan Bowman is obviously hoping those role players can help the team gut out a few more playoff wins this spring.

The presence of the Canucks, San Jose, Detroit and Los Angeles makes the West the tougher of the two conferences, so Chicago's road back to the Cup Finals will be a difficult one. Still, when it comes to a seven-game series, the Blackhawks could be the toughest team to match up against in the entire league.

Chicago has taken on the personality of its young captain, and if the Blackhawks are able to lift the Cup for the second time in three years, it will be Toews' resiliency that gets them back to the top of the mountain.

AWARDS

HART TROPHY (MVP):
Alex Ovechkin, Washington

Honorable Mentions: Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay; Jonathan Toews, Chicago.

VEZINA TROPHY (best goaltender): Henrik Lundqvist, NY Rangers

Honorable Mentions: Ryan Miller, Buffalo; Roberto Luongo, Vancouver.

NORRIS TROPHY (best defenseman): Shea Weber, Nashville

Honorable Mentions: Duncan Keith, Chicago; Zdeno Chara, Boston.

CALDER TROPHY (top rookie): Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado

Honorable Mentions: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton; Brayden Schenn, Philadelphia.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Dan Di Sciullo at ddisciullo@sportsnetwork.com.

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